What should a photographic artist’s legacy be? This question was answered quite differently by Ansel Adams and Brett Weston, two renowned landscape photographers.
Ansel was a classically-trained pianist. This may explain the metaphor that he used frequently. The negative, he said, is akin to a musical score – the resulting print is like a performance. That is consistent with his willingness to have others make prints from his negatives (under limited circumstances). Ansel was willing to permit others to have different interpretations of his “score.” During his life, Adams permitted sales of (carefully labeled) prints made from his negatives that were made by a trusted assistant. Therefore, when his time came, Ansel left all of his negatives to the Center for Creative Photography at the University of Arizona. Ansel instructed that, after his death, his negatives should be used to teach young photographers.
Brett Weston, however, felt differently. “No one can print another photographer’s negatives,” he wrote in his 1980 monograph. “It’s just too personal,” he wrote. Brett felt that the process of making photographs was an emotional continuum from visualizing the image to making the print. This process could not be started by the photographer and completed by another. Consistent with his principles, on his 80th birthday Brett destroyed the vast majority of his negatives. Only his prints survive. Brett’s attitude on the issue, however, may have been at least partially influenced by his family history. When Brett’s father, Edward, passed away, he left his negatives to another son, Cole, who made a career of making prints of his father’s works.
So which approach is better? Should a photographer leave his or her negatives (or digital files) for future generations to study, or is the process just too personal to the photographer to permit continued use after his or her death? I suspect that there is no “correct” answer other than that each photographer must make a personal decision.
What would you do? I’d love to read your thoughts in the comments, below.